If there’s one thing that brands like to have, it’s control. Control over their image, control over their messages, and control over what others say about them. In ye olde days of advertising (say circa 2004), this was relatively easy to achieve – media was more static, and customers had few outlets with which to complain about (or laud) a brand in public. But the rapid rise of social media has changed this. If a customer has a beef with your brand these days, they can spread it all over the internet in seconds. This is scary for brands, but the upside is they get to chat more directly with their audience, ask for their opinions and ideas and generally engage in a dialogue.
Well, this is how it should be, anyway. Recently though, there have been signs of the old corporate control freak instincts leaking into the social media territory. Earlier this year, BT set out on a supposed crowdsourcing exercise, asking its audience to vote for the outcome of the latest ad in a series starring anodyne couple Adam and Jane. At the end of an earlier ad, which featured Jane rubbing her stomach in a way that could only mean she was pregnant or had eaten a dodgy curry, viewers were asked, “What happens next? You decide.” From this, one might assume that BT was truly open to its audience’s ideas for its long-running couple. Visit the voting site though, and only two options were possible – either Jane would be pregnant or she wouldn’t.
Audiences were also invited to leave comments and other story suggestions, and a selection of these are listed on the site. Unsurprisingly, none of these feature the couple’s abduction by aliens, and instead include lines such as “Do hope the saga continues for ages yet. Really love it. Best ad there is!”
Apparently 1.6 million people voted, with 72% opting for Jane to be pregnant.
What remains unclear is how many of these people visited the site to offer more inventive suggestions (or abusive ones) and, once there, decided to vote anyway. BT has, inevitably, heralded the campaign as a huge success and gushed over how it proves how much the UK loves its advertising characters. Somehow this, as with the whole project, doesn’t ring true. Look anywhere online and you’ll struggle to find much positive commentary on the couple. Instead of following the golden rules of transparency and openness in the use of crowdsourcing, the campaign reeks of being a carefully managed PR exercise, in which BT had decided all the outcomes long in advance.
Looking at the recent Gap logo debacle, perhaps such control tactics are understandable. A quick recap for those that missed it: Gap releases its new logo online. Designed by Laird & Partners in New York, it features a Helvetica ‘Gap’ topped awkwardly with a blue square. The logo is universally panned.
Gap panics. Crowd-sourcing rears its increasingly ugly head, as Gap appears to try and capitalise on the interest surrounding the logo by asking the public to design its own versions via Facebook. The uproar continues. Gap bins the new logo and announces that it is sticking with its old one, claiming, in a piece of desperate PR spin, that it had underestimated its audience’s passion for it.
There is much to take away from this, not least the use of crowdsourcing as a means of humiliating the design industry, which is an increasingly uncomfortable aspect of this way of working. What is also startlingly clear is the difficulty that big brands continue to have when interacting with the public via social media. Instead of accepting that negativity is part of any new logo launch, good or bad, Gap panicked when they felt they had lost control of the commentary surrounding it. An attempt to wrestle this back via Facebook made the brand look hopelessly awkward and out of step with today’s media.
BT might look at Gap’s PR disaster with smugness, but in many ways their foray into audience participation is equally problematic. The brand may have got away with spinning its crowdsourcing success this time, but it is only a matter of time before audiences vocally reject such a manipulation of their time and energy. Crowdsourcing and other such interactions can be a fun and entertaining way for brands to make contact with their customers. But audiences demand consistency, honesty and rewards in return. Go about this the wrong way, as Gap now knows to its detriment, and brands run the risk of losing control of the conversation altogether.